Our two-party system is ripe for change

By John B. Anderson
Published December 25th 2005 in Miami Herald (and other publications)

This holiday season brings ill tidings for an America dominated by two bickering behemoths. The Republicans are flailing under their bag of goodies for America, stuffed with a spate of ethics scandals at state, congressional, and presidential levels, as well as Iraq's daily death toll. The Democrats are buckling under the weight of their own Santa satchel, bulging with pundits and consultants who cry for a bold, new vision, but with little, unified answer from party leaders who already should have one.

During my two decades as a congressman, I know that this kind of political posturing and finger pointing in Washington is par for the course, even at this time of year. But it has gotten worse, with more serious consequences. Lost in the self-interested politics of this bitterly divided, two-party duopoly is Americans' perennial wish to finally be free to vote their conscience, not their calculus.

For too long, Americans have had to choose between "the lesser of two evils" or risk having their vote for a favorite candidate outside the duopoly split the majority and benefit their least favorite candidate. Many simply abstain.

The problem is our winner-take all, plurality-voting system that could and should be changed by mere statute. This system violates the fundamental principles of real democracy: that every vote should count equally and that a true majority should rule. Furthermore, it increasingly causes demonizing partisanship and power grappling between the two mega-parties, supplanting public service and principled policy altogether.

Indeed, the "bane of party spirit," of which George Washington warned in his farewell address in 1796, has produced the factions and increasingly bitter recriminations feared by our constitutional framers. Our polarized, winner-take-all elections in gerrymandered districts have given us five consecutive national congressional elections where more than 98 percent of all incumbents have won, most by huge margins. Most state legislators are even more entrenched, resulting in leaders who quash all dissent and run roughshod over the minority.

The one-party domination of most congressional districts and of most legislatures is a product of limiting choices and denying representation to so many Americans. As it stands now, winner-take-all elections for legislative seats has majority Republicans entrenched, feeling invulnerable, while the minority Democrats try to be everything - and therefore nothing - to everybody to win back seats.

Regardless of which party is temporarily on top, though, too many in the major parties loathe the idea of voters having more viable choices. With more voices, they risk losing the chokehold of a two-choice electoral system that produces stagnation rather than stability, an entrenchment of corrupting power rather than the energy of new ideas needed to address war and inequality that cast lengthening shadows here and abroad.

There is little democracy, much less progress, when voters' choices are restricted and their voices, therefore, muted. This is exactly why I left my party to run as an independent for president of the United States in 1980. The major parties can only be accountable if able to defeat challenges by independents and third parties.

Americans want, and deserve, a bold, pragmatic vision for free and fair elections here at home, bridging the so-called red-state, blue-state divide, and ensuring accountability, integrity and diversity of views - even within a given party. We must put America's democracy back in the hands of the voters, where it belongs.

Instead of electing executive leaders by plurality systems that put independents in the "spoiler" role, we should use instant runoff voting, a majority system that has passed with flying colors in major elections abroad and in American cities. Instead of electing legislators through winner-take-all, one-seat districts, we should use proportional systems that widen voter choices and representation in multi-seat districts - just as my home state of Illinois so effectively elected state legislators for more than a century.

If our elected officials are too hooked on the politics of power to trust the will of the American people, we should likewise choose not to put our trust in them. Such common-sense reforms cannot wait when the purpose of our country and so many lives literally hang in the balance. For each American, therefore, let us recall the words of Lincoln in this season and give our country the gift that truly keeps giving: a real democracy - of the people, for the people, and, ultimately, by the people.

John B. Anderson served Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1961 to 1981. He ran for president as an independent in 1980 and today is chairman of FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy.

(c) 2005, FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services